Connecting Our Communities: Collaborative Programming Between Academic and Public Libraries
Jennifer Schnabel (email@example.com)
Assistant to the Dean for Community Engagement
The University of Memphis, University Libraries
Originally presented at the Tennessee Library Association Annual Conference (Chattanooga, TN) in April 2013.
A year-long programming initiative is planned by the University of Memphis Libraries, Christian Brothers University, and the Memphis Public Library. The libraries will engage with representative organizations from the three major faith-based communities (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) to show films, present lectures, and organize a community read.
In January 2013, the Memphis Public Library and Information Center (MPLIC), the University of Memphis (U of M) Libraries, and Christian Brothers University (CBU) Library were each awarded the Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: Muslim Journeys from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the American Library Association (ALA). The Bookshelf included 25 books, three films, and a one-year subscription to the Oxford Islamic Studies Online database. The award was the result of a partnership between two academic libraries, the city's public library system, and several community organizations. All involved were equally committed to offering free programming and accessible, reliable information about Islamic history and culture to as many Memphians as possible. This paper outlines the planning process as well as the pitfalls and successes we experienced during the first half of our year-long collaboration and the lessons we continue to learn as we connect with our communities.
The goal of the Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: Muslim Journeys is “to address both the need and the desire of the American public for trustworthy and accessible resources about Muslim beliefs and practices and the cultural heritage associated with Islamic civilizations.” ALA and NEH worked with renowned scholars to select materials that reflect five themes: American Stories, Connected Histories, Literary Reflections, Pathways of Faith, and Points of View (ALA, 2012).
Last August, I was invited to a meeting at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Branch of MPLIC to discuss ways U of M could support the public library's annual festival celebrating local authors. After the meeting, I casually mentioned that I was planning to apply for the Bridging Cultures Bookshelf, and I was concerned about meeting the upcoming deadline and identifying the required community partners; others chimed in that they, too, were working on an application. We talked briefly about our similar programming and outreach ideas and decided to explore the possibility of collaboration between the U of M Libraries, CBU, and MPLIC. I had recently relocated to Memphis and appreciated the opportunity to cultivate professional connections both on campus and in the community.
The U of M is a public university serving over 22,000 students, staff, and faculty (U of M, 2013). Community members are invited to obtain a special privileges card that enables them to check out materials from the library. CB is a private, Roman Catholic institution serving approximately 1,600 students from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds (CBU, 2013). MPLIC includes 18 branch libraries throughout the region and serves more than 850,000 people (MPLIC, 2011).
The three libraries were represented by Nancy Knight, Director of Community Outreach and Special Projects, MPLIC; Wang-Ying Glasgow, Adult Services Coordinator, MPLIC; Kay Cunningham, Director of Plough Library, CBU; and Jennifer Schnabel, Assistant to the Dean for Community Engagement, U of M Libraries. Nancy and Wang-Ying had contacted two community leaders whom they met while working with Memphis interfaith and leadership initiatives and invited them to join us. Dr. Nabil Bayakly is a biology and Arabic professor, faculty adviser to the Muslim Student Association at the U of M, and representative of the Muslim Society of Memphis. Nadeem Zafar, M.D., represents the Pakistan Association of Memphis. Both were eager to participate. Brother Tom Sullivan of CBU and Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel synagogue also contributed to early discussions (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Planning Committee. Left to right: Nabil Bayakly, Nancy Knight, Nadeem Zafar, Tom Sullivan, Kay Cunningham, Jennifer Schnabel, Wang-Ying Glasgow. Not pictured: Micah Greenstein
The core committee met several times early in the fall to discuss the community's needs and how we could work together to fulfill the Bookshelf's programming requirements. We believed that our respective students, members, and patrons would be receptive to a bookshelf and programming, especially one that encourages dialogue about religion. There are 1,665 faith-based congregations in Memphis (ARDA, 2010), as well as several organizations like the Metropolitan Inter-faith Association, which coordinates the efforts of 200 congregations to serve senior citizens and families (MIFA, 2008), and the Memphis Inter-religious Group, formed by members of several houses of worship to strengthen understanding and relationships between religions (MIGA, 2011). In 2010, the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) identified nine Islamic congregations and 4,776 adherents in Memphis.
Furthermore, we were encouraged by the growing partnership between Heartsong Church and the Memphis Islamic Center, neighboring congregations who share Thanksgiving and Ramadan dinners (Trotter, 2010) and are transforming the green space between the two buildings into “Friendship Park” (Waters, 2012). The Commercial Appeal, the city's major newspaper, includes a weekly column about faith in Memphis and hosts a Web page featuring related news items (http://faithinmemphis.com/). We agreed that Memphians of all faiths, whether practicing or not, were at least interested in talking about religion.
We then reflected on how and why historical events like 9/11 triggered a backlash against the Muslim community, fueled by stereotypes perpetuated by the media. Fear is contagious and often leads to damaging generalizations based on distorted facts. However, as Dr. Bayakly pointed out, the heightened attention also invigorated the American public’s interest in seeking reliable books, articles, films, and other materials about Islam. He believes the curiosity about his religion and culture has steadily continued over the last decade. Thus, the three libraries could have a positive impact on the community by connecting our patrons with the Bridging Cultures materials and offering free access to quality information about Islam as an alternative to the plethora of unreliable resources available to the public, especially online. We all viewed our partnership as an opportunity to provide a forum for interfaith and intercultural dialogue in order to encourage mutual respect and understanding. After we articulated our collective passion for the project, we decided to move forward with our plans, even if our grant application was unsuccessful. Dr. Zafar wrote to all of us, “As a Muslim Tennessean and a member of the greater Memphis community, I deeply appreciate this excellent step from our institutions and the library system” (N. Zafar, personal communication, October 25, 2012).
The most challenging part of the early planning was choosing which of the books and themes to highlight. The diverse titles, from A Quiet Revolution by Leila Ahmed to The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam by F. E. Peters, provided the flexibility and opportunity to create programming around various disciplines: history, religion, anthropology, gender studies, sociology, education, and languages. We were fortunate to have access to scholars through several Memphis institutions who would be willing to share their expertise. It was also important to hold events at all three locations to maximize accessibility and emphasize our partnership.
Our proposed plan was to show the film Prince Among Slaves (2007) and host a scholar-led discussion at CBU during Multicultural Month and to screen Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World (2011) at the U of M during the same time as the annual Muslims in Memphis celebration (both in March). MPLIC would organize a community read of Eboo Patel's Acts of Faith, sending letters to over 700 community organizations, congregations, elected officials, high school history/social studies teachers, and history and religion professors at local colleges and universities. The community read project would culminate in a panel discussion of the book and its themes in November. The Pakistan Association of Memphis offered to donate 75 copies of Acts of Faith to the public library. CBU and U of M would each schedule another film showing in the fall. The U of M Libraries would create a research guide about the Bookshelf which would be available to the public (http://libguides.memphis.edu/muslimjourneys ).
ALA allowed each library to submit a common narrative, and we wrote letters of support for one another echoing the same message: We wanted to combine the strengths and reach of our organizations to support the educational intent of the Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: Muslim Journeys collection. In early January, we were notified that each library received the Bookshelf award. We immediately informed our community partners, thanking them for their support, and solidified our programming and outreach plans.
Responses and Challenges
We were prepared for both positive and negative feedback from the community, especially after reading about a North Carolina congressman's sour reaction to Craven College's receipt of the grant (Sawyer, 2013). Indeed, reader comments on the article announcing our partnership were both encouraging as well as disheartening (Lollar, 2013), but the reactions reiterated the libraries' missions to provide reliable information to our constituents. Our film showings and related discussions garnered positive responses, and the materials are consistently checked out of our libraries.
In April, we received a letter from Kareem Ali, a representative of the American Muslim Intercultural Network, asking to participate in our collaboration. He was interested in sharing the perspectives of Americans who have converted to Islam. We realized we had erroneously excluded this group from our planning committee, and invited Ali to our next meeting. Around the same time, Humanities Tennessee expressed an interest in our programming and invited the MPLIC to apply for a grant to bring an additional speaker to Memphis. Kareem suggested we invite Dr. Edward E. Curtis, IV, professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University and editor of The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States. He was also the keynote speaker for the 2013 ALA Conference.
The July lecture, held in a large meeting room at the MPLIC central branch, attracted over 125 attendees, many of whom were from the Muslim community. Dr. Curtis emphasized the history of the various sects of Islam and their role in American history. We had been so focused on the importance of educating the non-Muslim public about Islam that we had forgotten about the responsibility to provide reliable resources to library patrons within the Muslim community. Fortunately, Humanities Tennessee and Dr. Curtis gave us the opportunity to correct our mistake.
Moving Toward the Future
We are preparing for our fall programs by engaging faculty members at both academic institutions as well as community organizations in Memphis. The committee is already thinking beyond the Bookshelf, planning to continue the relationships we developed during the Muslim Journeys initiative and thinking of ways to encourage and promote inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue using library resources. The lessons we learned in the spring (see below) can help us and others with planning similar collaborations with our communities.
Stay flexible and open to program possibilities
Choose enthusiastic and committed partners
Contact all possible community partners early and communicate often
Incorporate the project into existing plans and initiatives
Cross-promote and support each other’s programs
Create a safe environment for discussion and disagreement
Don’t expect all participants to like the books
Focus on the original excitement, even when glitches occur